23andMe introduces ResearchKit module allowing study participants to contribute genetic data to medical research

23andMe on Monday announced a new module for Apple's open source ResearchKit software framework that allows scientists "to seamlessly integrate genetic information into their app-based studies." The Mount Sinai Asthma Health and Stanford Medicine's MyHeart Counts apps will be the first to implement the module, according to 23andMe, while the app-based PPD Act study led by the University of North Carolina (UNC) will use genetic testing to better understand why some women are impacted by postpartum depression.

"There's so much we still need to learn about postpartum depression and it may be DNA that provides the key to better understanding why some women experience symptoms and others do not," stated Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the perinatal psychiatry programme at the UNC Center for Women's Mood Disorders. Meltzer-Brody added that "with ResearchKit, and now the ability to incorporate genetic data, we're able to engage women with postpartum depression from a wide geographic and demographic range and can analyse the genomic signature of postpartum depression to help us find more effective treatments."

Meanwhile, the MyHeart Counts app-based study will use genetic data from current 23andMe customers to identify predisposition to heart conditions and measure the effects of physical activity and lifestyle on cardiovascular health. As part of the study, participants are asked every three months to monitor a week's worth of physical activity, complete a six-minute walk fitness test if possible and provide risk-factor information, while the app will provide a comprehensive summary of each user's heart health and areas for improvement. According to 23andMe, more than 50 000 users have agreed to participate in the study in the US, Hong Kong and the UK.

In addition, the Asthma Health app, which was co-developed by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and LifeMap Solutions, will permit users with asthma to participate in a large-scale medical research study directly from the iPhone. In the study, the investigators will monitor the patterns of asthma symptoms, as well as their potential triggers, in an effort to provide insights into personalised treatment. The app will also educate patients, assist them with self-monitoring, suggest behavioural changes and stress the importance of treatment adherence. 23andMe stated that over 8800 people have so far joined the asthma research study in the US, the UK and Ireland.

"Collecting this type of information will help researchers determine genomic indicators for specific diseases and conditions," explained Eric Schadt of the Icahn School of Medicine. In regards to asthma, Schadt said the ResearchKit platform "is allowing us to study this population more broadly than ever before, and through the large amounts of data we're able to gather from iPhone, we're understanding how factors like environment, geography and genes influence one's disease and response to treatment."

Moreover, the new module will also open up ways for non-23andMe customers to contribute their genetic information. Specifically, developers using the ResearchKit platform can choose to offer 23andMe's genotyping services through the module to their study participants, with the costs of testing to be covered by the researchers themselves.

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